As university terms get under way around the UK, students are facing a new academic year like no other. Some have been locked down in halls, others have learned that their lessons will be online-only for the next two weeks.
It seems likely that the picture will continue to change over the coming weeks as cases of coronavirus are confirmed and universities take action to keep staff and students safe.
So what are your rights if your course suddenly doesn’t look like the one you applied for or you need to leave your accommodation and go home?
My course is not what I expected – can I get my money back?
This could become a key battleground over the next few months. The government has told universities that they can still charge full fees for courses that are entirely online, or otherwise different from what’s on offer in normal years. But if your course charges fees you are protected under the consumer rights act – just like when you buy a TV – and providers are obliged to provide courses that are as good as those they advertised.
If you believe you are not getting what you paid for, you should complain to the university in the first instance. Then, if you are unhappy with the response, you can go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education – it is a kind of ombudsman and will review your complaint. If it finds in your favour, in some cases it may order a refund of some of your fees.
Its website makes it clear that change alone is not grounds for you to get your money back. “If your provider has offered you different but broadly equivalent teaching and assessment opportunities in a way that you could access, it is not likely that you will get a fee refund for that,” it says.
But it has also warned universities that they cannot have clauses in their contracts with students that allow them to change significant aspects of courses. The National Union of Students has a guide to the complaints procedure on its website.
Boz Michalowska-Howells, the head of product safety and consumer law at Leigh Day solicitors, said universities’ obligations “will be defined by the contracts and the representations they have made in respect of the quality of the teaching and the services they provide”.
She added: “If lectures or tutorials do not take place or if the standard of teaching is not what they expected, or if they don’t have access to libraries and research facilities, students would have a claim for breach of contract.”
And if universities have made savings through not providing facilities, she says it would be good practice for them to reduce fees accordingly.
Can I drop out?
If you decide you do not want to go ahead with your course you may be in a position to pull out and get your money back. When you accept a university offer there is a cooling-off period in which you can cancel. Many universities give you two weeks from when you accept but for some the period extends beyond the start of term.
At Leeds, for example, all year-groups can cancel within 14 days of the first date of teaching, which this year is 28 September. You need to cancel in writing and will get your money back but you will no longer be a student at the university: this is not the same as deferring your place to next year. However, this only applies to your tuition, not accommodation.
The details will be outlined in the contract you signed when you accepted your place. If the cooling-off period has ended you will have to pay some of the tuition fees to pull out. Leaving partway through the first term may cost you 25% of the year’s fees – the sum you paid at the start of term.
You will need to let Student Finance – the body that oversees student loans – know if you do leave as you will no longer qualify for loans.
I want to keep studying but want to move back home. Can I cancel my accommodation?
Your options will depend on who you are renting your room from. University-owned accommodation tends to be more flexible than that owned by private landlords. If you are in halls it is not always immediately clear who your landlord is as some universities give details of flats they don’t own.
However, according to Citizens Advice, “generally you are liable for any rent due until the end of your fixed term (and any guarantor may be pursued if you don’t pay)”.
Check your contract for details of how much notice you need to give to cancel and what charges you will be liable for. Speak to your accommodation provider and see if it is possible to break your contract early. It is highly unlikely to be able to cancel an accommodation contract with immediate effect but the landlord may consider an early break.
A spokesperson for the NUS said the rules are different in different parts of the UK. Addressing England, Wales and Northern Ireland only, the spokesperson said: “Students have no statutory right to unilaterally terminate a fixed-term tenancy during the fixed-term period. However, universities and landlords can agree to release a student from their tenancy early and some universities and student accommodation providers have implemented more flexible tenancy terms this year.”
The organisation is campaigning for better tenants’ rights for students. In the meantime, the spokesperson said: “If students wish to exit a fixed-term tenancy early they should seek support from a trained housing adviser in their students’ union or an organisation such as Shelter and then enter into discussions with their landlord.”
If you are in a private houseshare you may have signed an agreement in which you are described as joint tenants. This means if you leave, your housemates will be liable to pay your share of the rent.
What if my course is now online only?
Citizens Advice says it may be possible to put forward a “frustration” argument against having to continue for the rest of your contract for a room if “the purpose of the accommodation is radically altered. For instance, if it was closely tied to a student attending a course in a particular location, and the provider is now delivering the whole course remotely.” But it says this has not been tested in court, so it is unclear if you would succeed.
I am struggling with rent as my term-time job has been cancelled. What should I do?
Get in touch with your university and get details of any financial hardship funds and bursaries you can apply for. If you are in danger of missing a rent payment, speak to your landlord. Just missing a payment could trigger punitive fees, whereas if you give the landlord notice you may be able to come to an arrangement over payments.
What if I fall ill and I have to go home?
It is rare for accommodation contracts to have clauses allowing you to cancel if you become ill, so you are likely to end up paying rent even if you do have to go home.